Rolling the rails in Trainmaker, a train dice game

I read something very interesting about memory once: when you remember a moment, you’re aren’t just remembering that moment, you are also remembering every time you’ve ever remembered it. What that means is that you can never remember something without changing your memory of it. We think we’re calling up photographic images of the past, but actually our memories are actually always slightly distorted, like the rippling reflection of the clouds in a stream. You can never really know if anything you remember is true. I’m not going to claim that my memories are any exception to that, but I do have a few memories from my very early childhood that I think are real.

One of my earliest memories is looking under a train car. My family was at a train museum and I poked my head under one of the boxcars. The underside was black and crisscrossed by pipes and cables. I don’t know why I remember that, I guess because it was frightening and fascinating.

Trains are kind of awe-inspiring. I live in a noisy urban area, far from the nearest track, but sometimes at night you can hear the whistle of a train in the distance, a mechanical lion’s roar reverberating across miles of metropolitan savanna.

Perhaps this impressiveness is why trains have inspired so many board games. There is a whole spectrum of games involving trains to explore, from the largest board games to the tiniest card games and everything in between. For example, Trainmaker, a train dice game.


Trainmaker components

Trainmaker is a game for two to five players from Grey Gnome Games. At the start of each turn, there are three station cards in the middle of the table and you’ll attempt to claim as many of them as you can. Station cards have a type of cargo (timber, coal, passengers, etc.) and a particular type of train (for example, a train with two blue cars and one green car). You claim a station card by rolling a set of seven dice with train cars on them and making that station’s train. Trains must start with an engine and end with a caboose, so you have to roll at least one engine, then roll the cars for the station, then roll a caboose. You can roll as many times as possible, but after each roll, you must remove at least one die and add it to the train you are building. The winner is the first person to claim one of each of the six types of station cards, or to meet the condition on their secret goal card (for example, three timber stations or three coal stations).

Trainmaker is essentially Yahtzee-like. You roll dice and choose which ones to set aside. However, instead of threes-of-a-kind or full houses, you are trying to make the trains on the station cards. I think it’s quite a bit more fun than Yahtzee, though. You don’t need a pencil and paper. You have a secret goal. Every single turn, you find yourself thinking, “Am I going to be able to pull this off?”

In fact, I think the game is fun, period. Trainmaker has just the right amount of interesting complications. You start almost every turn with a tough choice: do you add one engine to your train or two—if you only add one engine, you’ll have more dice available to try for the cars you need, but if you add two, you give yourself the opportunity to make another train to your turn to try to claim another station card.

There are also a number of ways you can manipulate the dice to your advantage. Every game, you get one train token you can spend to set one die to any side. Plus, you can spend station cards you’ve claimed to take special actions (for example, to re-roll dice or set one die to a specific side), but that means you won’t have those stations available to win the game.

Occasionally you will bust and not be able to make a train at all because you didn’t get an engine on your first roll. More often, you will find yourself desperately trying to roll a caboose to finish your train. Therein lies the fun of the game. It’s always exciting to risk it and see if you can get lucky and claim all three stations.


I hear the train a comin', it's rollin' 'round the bend, and I ain't rolled a caboose since I don't know when.
I hear the train a comin’, it’s rollin’ ’round the bend, and I ain’t rolled a caboose since I don’t know when.

The cards in Trainmaker feature gorgeous illustrations in a sort of cowboy-Impressionist style. It brings to mind Western movies and the transcontinental railroad spreading out from big cities to the new frontier. You can almost feel the dust on your boots as you step onto the platform. The cards don’t all have unique artwork, but there are enough different designs in the game to keep it interesting.


The attention to detail in Trainmaker clearly shows that the game was a labor of love. Each station card has the name of an actual city on it. Less valuable stations are smaller cities, more valuable stations are larger cities, and I believe each station’s goods are based on the region of the city. For example, cities from the Pacific Northwest have timber stations and cities from Appalachia have coal stations.

Dice comparison: King of Tokyo (left), Trainmaker (center), Chessex 16mm (right).
Dice comparison: King of Tokyo (left), Trainmaker (center), Chessex 16mm (right).

The components feel premium. The cards have a sharply tactile linen finish on them. The train tokens are wooden. The dice are extremely high quality, with etched and painted train cars. Perhaps the only way the dice could be better is if they were slightly larger à la King of Tokyo. However, all in all, Trainmaker is in the top tier of quality.

Number of players

The game feels most engaging with two players. With two, you can keep an eye on what station cards your opponent probably needs and try to take those cards for yourself. With more than two players, you can’t really impact anyone except for the player after you and any stations you miss out on will almost certainly be gone before it’s your turn again.

However, something really interesting happens with more players. You are slightly disconnected from the other players and it feels a bit like everyone is playing their own game. I guess you could look at that as a downside, but I think there is also an upside to it. On other people’s turns, I find myself cheering for them to build the train they need.

I mean, yes, it’s still a competitive game. You’re still trying to win, and for you to win, everyone else has to lose. But you don’t win by tearing the other players down—by stealing their points or crushing their forces—you win by building yourself up. This means you can cheer for other people to finish a train without cheering against yourself. I like that.

Mini games

The back of the Trainmaker box advertises that it includes three additional “mini games,” all of which were added as stretch goals during the game’s Kickstarter project. I tried all three of them so you don’t have to.

All Aboard

Trainmaker All Aboard mini game
All Aboard? More like One Aboard…

All Aboard is a solitaire game practically identical to Yahtzee. You have a card with six options—for example, five of a kind or a full house of train cars. The card is used just like a Yahtzee score pad: you have three rolls each turn and then you either put a train token next an option to show that you scored it or you cover it with a token to cross it off. The goal of the game is to get as many points as possible. This is a fun solitaire game if you’re enamored with the train dice but don’t have another person to play with. The only downside is that the train tokens are slightly too big to lay flat on the card so you have to stand them up.

Lawmen vs. Robbers

Trainmaker Lawmen vs. Robbers mini game
Note: two of the six sides of the train dice are engines. The other four sides are one caboose, one blue car, one yellow car, and one green car.

Lawmen vs. Robbers is essentially a two player version of Texas hold ’em poker with train dice instead of cards. The dice are assigned a hierarchy from engine (lowest) to caboose (highest) and you try to make pairs, straights, etc. using three dice of your own plus one community die. Also, the lawmen and robbers each have two unique combinations they can roll to for a special action. Again, it’s a decent tiny game if you’re hankering for something else to do with the train dice.

Rail Tycoon

Trainmaker Rail Tycoon mini game
Remember, being a rail tycoon was so soul-suckingly unsatisfying that Andrew Carnegie gave his entire fortune to charity.

In the Rail Tycoon “mini” game for two to four players, each player is building a grid of station cards. You start with a hand of stations and roll the dice to buy stations from your hand, draw more stations, or steal stations from other players. When you buy a station, you can add it to your empire by placing it next to one of the stations you already own, assuming the icons of the two cards match. At the end of the game, you get points for having the most stations of a particular type, plus some additional bonuses, and the winner is the person with the most points.

In the first place, it’s a bit rich to claim that this is a mini game. It takes at least as long as playing Trainmaker and requires a vast expanse of table space. Also, it’s incredibly confusing. The matching rule for how to branch station cards is not clearly explained in the rules (I’m still not sure I got it right, or that there’s any way it makes sense). The scoring is tediously complex. The whole thing is overwrought, overlong, and just not very fun. There was a good idea for a game here, but it was hamstrung by the need to use the exact same components as Trainmaker.

On the whole, the mini games are a nice bonus, but I would steer clear of Rail Tycoon.

Final thoughts

What should we expect from Trainmaker?

What is the most that you can expect from any game? That it delights you? Surprises you? Engages you? That opening its box puts you in a dream state reminiscent of a Christmas morning, redolent with the tingling, expectant fragrance of freshly fallen fir needles and adhesive tape?

Trainmaker is a small dice game. I wouldn’t say “Hey, everybody come over on Saturday night and we’ll all play Trainmaker” anymore than I would say “Hey, everybody come over, we’ve got snacks and we can all play Yahtzee.” It’s just not that kind of game.

But I will say this: Trainmaker is one of my favorite games. It’s not intimidating to new players, it can be enjoyed by children or adults, and there’s just something ineffably satisfying about rolling those shiny, colorful train dice when you just need to get a caboose.

Fidelitas is bona fide fun

The summer before my senior year of college, I took an intensive class on Latin. Yes, Latin. I know what you’re probably thinking. Latin is the second car of the language world—it’s a luxury language. And yet, Latin is also the gateway to understanding the ancient world, much of our own English language, and many great works of literature. Whenever you are learning another language, you are also learning about another culture, and this is particularly true with Latin: it is an opportunity to learn about the beginnings of our global civilization.

Since Latin hasn’t changed much over the past two millenia, the teaching of Latin—at least, as a written language—has essentially been perfected. For the past half century or so, many courses in the US have used the same textbook: Wheelock’s Latin. In a world where all of us are increasingly fragmented, where there are so many news outlets, television channels, and other forms of media that no two people are ever exposed to a common narrative, where in some ways we all have increasingly less in common, studying Latin connects you with generations of learners who came before.

Latin also helps to forge relationships with people today. When you take an intensive language course, you build up a camaraderie with your fellow students. Studying Latin in particular makes you feel like part of a club. Team Lingua Latina. It brought about moments of connection with older people that I wouldn’t have otherwise had as they recalled snippets they remembered from studying Latin when they were younger. “Amo amas amat,” “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” et cetera.

As much as Latin is the world’s most popular “dead language,” it would probably be more accurate to describe it as a “ghost language” or “zombie language” since it is still hanging around post mortem. Latin has many practical applications today. From a product design perspective, Latin enables you to choose a product name that is distinctive but still somewhat familiar and pronounceable to speakers of most European languages. Plus, your product can have the same name in multiple countries without the need for translation. Several board games have chosen the Latin approach, including Dixit, Agricola, and Terra Mystica. Also, a little card game called Fidelitas.


Fidelitas components

Fidelitas (Latin for “faithfulness”) is a ludus (game) for one to four homo sapiens from Green Couch Games (Lectus Viridis Ludi). The prima facie goal of the game is to organize a group of townspeople to plan a revolution. Each player starts with a hand of character cards and goal cards. Several location cards are placed in the center of the table to form the town. Each turn, you add a character from your hand to one of the locations, use that character’s unique action (for example, the Dockmaster lets you move other characters next to the harbor location), then draw another character. Once the characters are in situ to meet the conditions of one of your secret goals (for example, members of four different guilds at the magistrate’s office), you can claim the points for that goal and draw a new goal. The first person to get ten points in toto is the winner.

The key aspect of the game, the sine qua non that keeps you engaged, is that while you are trying to meet your goals, the other players are trying to meet their completely different goals. Your modus operandi always has to be guessing what they’re trying to do while being none-too-obvious about what you’re trying to do. Sometimes you might move a character to a location and unwittingly help another player meet one of their goals. Sometimes another player might do that for you. Sometimes someone might figure out what you’re trying to do and block you, or vice versa. The feeling of clandestinely manipulating the town under the very nasum of your opponent transforms the game into a gratifying experience.

Veni vidi lusi

Fidelitas is an excellent game for two players. Technically, you can play with as many as four players, but I think I’m on terra firma in saying that two is optimal.

The character cards are called Virtus cards, which technically means "character" in Latin... in the sense of moral character.
The character cards are called Virtus cards, which means “character” in Latin… in the sense of moral character.

Learning the game is enjoyable, particularly if you and the other player are both new to the game and discovering it pari passu. The first couple of games, you don’t know what all of the different characters and goals are—ergo, you can’t really intentionally trip up anyone else—but it’s fun to see the variety of cards in the game for the first time. Once you’ve played once or twice, you’ll start to have an inkling of what other person might be attempting and you can try to outwit them. Of course, nota bene, if you focus too much on disrupting someone else, you won’t have time to meet your own goals.

Fidelitas is competitive but not cutthroat. It has some conflict, but it is not per se a confrontational game because it’s often hard to tell for sure what your opponent is doing. The tagline on the Fidelitas box is “a game of medieval meddling,” and “meddling” is a pretty accurate description. At the most, you feel like you are bumping and jostling the other players, not stabbing them in front in the entire Roman Senate while shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!”

Ars ludi

Dulce et decorum est Fidelitati ludere.
Dulce et decorum est Fidelitati ludere.

One of the things that attracted me to Fidelitas was the pulchritudinous artwork. I love how the character cards bring to life the different dramatis personae of the game in a way that echoes the look of medieval illuminated manuscripts, while also harkening back to classic, hand-drawn Disney animation in movies like Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.

Appendices ludi

The game comes with an expansion called Manu Forti, which is Latin for “with a strong hand.” This is a rather clever name since the expansion cards each have an additional ability that can only be used if you have a large hand of cards at your disposal. Therefore, these cards are ipso facto a bit more complicated than the core game’s cards, but the differences are essentially explained on the cards themselves. Since it’s included in the box, it’s a bit of a non sequitur to call it an expansion and it’s easy enough to grasp that you can shuffle it in ab initio.

The goal cards are called Missio cards, which means "mission" in Latin. The Manu Forti expansion cards function as both characters and goals.
The goal cards are called Missio cards, which means “mission” in Latin. The Manu Forti cards function as both characters and goals.

The Kickstarter edition of the game came with a few promotional cards, making up a de facto second expansion. The cards are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they’re a great addition because you get some fun new characters for some of the rarer guilds, which boosts the variety of the game and slightly eases the frustration of trying to complete certain goals. On the other hand, the new candlestick maker goal is difficult in extremis, and it’s only worth a measly two points, which is basically nil considering how unlikely it is you will be able to score it.

Cogito ergo Fidelitati ludo.
Cogito ergo Fidelitati ludo.

Caveat emptor

Fidelitas has thick, linen finished cards, but the linen finish is only on one side of the cards and is less defined than in many other games. One of my cards got a crease in it from shuffling, although—mea culpa—this may be because I am bad at shuffling. Also, it may simply be because we’ve played the game ad infinitum and the cards are wearing out.

Cogitationes ultimae

After so long as our card game du jour, Fidelitas has a de jure position on my list of favorite games.
After so long as our card game du jour, Fidelitas has a de jure claim to being one of my favorite games.

Fidelitas has a special place in my heart because it was the first game I Kickstarted that both my wife and I really fell in love with. Between the whimsical artwork and the playful antagonism of trying to meet different secret goals, I think it is a perfect choice for times when you want to play a game with a little intrigue, but not wage an all out war. A fortiori, it is a great game for couples because it can’t get too mean; you can poke and prod your partner with no risk of it turning into a casus belli.

I could go on ad nauseam about how much I love this game, but I’ll just say this: Fidelitas always makes me smile. With gorgeous design and enjoyable gameplay, I consider Fidelitas the ne plus ultra of Kickstarter card games. If you’re looking for a delightful game for two players, you should definitely pick it up—carpe Fidelitatem!

Deception may be the best murder mystery board game ever devised

Clue is a pervasive cultural influence. We all know what it means to talk about Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick or Professor Plum in the study with the rope. There are a lot of reasons that Clue is such a popular game, but one of them is definitely the situation that Clue puts you in. You get to feel like you’re solving a mystery. It lets you live out an Agatha Christie novel as upper-crusty aristocrats trying to catch a murderer in a stately old mansion.

But Clue has some drawbacks.

The worst part about Clue is if you put the cards in the envelope wrong and it turns out to be the revolver with the wrench in the conservatory.
The worst part about Clue is if you put the cards in the envelope wrong and it turns out to be the revolver with the wrench in the conservatory.

One of those drawbacks is metaphysical certainty. Like a lot of deduction games, Clue is based on symmetric information and precise logic. When you receive a clue in Clue, you learn something with 100% confidence about who the murder is or is not. A computer program could play Clue just as well as a human.

That’s not the only way to set up a deduction game, though. There’s another board game about solving mysteries that discloses clues in a completely different way, with asymmetric hints that point you toward the solution without any one clue telling you anything for sure about who the murderer is. That game is Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, and it requires you to employ your whole human imagination if you want to solve a case.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong


In Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, all of the players are detectives investigating a murder. The twist is, of course, that one of the detectives is also the murderer.

At the start of the game, each player has eight cards face up in front of them: four weapon cards and four evidence cards. That way, each person has four weapons that they might have committed the murder with and four pieces of evidence that they might have left behind at the crime scene. Secret role cards are dealt to each player to determine who the murderer is. Then the murderer chooses one weapon card and one evidence card from their own cards as the actual murder weapon and actual evidence left behind.

The game is facilitated by a “forensic scientist” player. Instead of weapon and evidence cards, the forensic scientist has six clue tiles in front of them. The forensic scientist knows the solution to the crime (from a phase of the game where everyone else has their head down), and is trying to help the investigators find the murderer. However, the forensic scientist is not allowed to talk. The only way the forensic scientist can communicate is by placing markers on the clue tiles (each clue tile is a multiple choice description of something to do with the crime: for example, the location, the cause of death, the motive, or the time of day).

The game can double as a language learning tool because all of the cards and tiles have both English and Traditional Chinese on them.
The game can double as a language learning tool because all of the cards and tiles have both English and Traditional Chinese on them.

Every investigator gets one official guess at the exact solution to the murder. An investigator who guesses wrong must turn in their badge, but can still participate in the discussion. If every investigator turns in their badge, then the murderer wins. However, if one investigator correctly guesses both the murder weapon and evidence left behind, then all of the investigators win.


The game roles play very differently, but all of them are very enjoyable and challenging.

As an investigator, you are discussing with all of the other investigators, trying to pick out the correct murder weapon and evidence based on the vague clues that the forensic scientist is allowed to give and your intuition about which of the other investigators is lying to you.

As the murderer, you are trying to blend in with the investigators while secretly misleading and misdirecting them into guessing the wrong solution.

As the forensic scientist, you are silently and carefully listening to the discussion of the other players, using what they are saying to decide how to place markers on the clue tiles and which clue tile to replace after each round of discussion. (The rulebook says to assign the forensic scientist randomly with the other roles, but we’ve found that some players really want to be the forensic scientist, while other players really don’t, so we tend to give it to the players who do want it.)

In larger games, you can add several additional secret roles, including an accomplice who knows the identity of the murderer and helps mislead the other players, and a witness who knows who knows the identities of both the murderer and accomplice but must keep their own identity a secret. Since a full game typically averages around 15 or 20 minutes, you can play several times in a row and everyone can get a chance to experience multiple roles.

Moments of insight

The best way for me to talk about why Deception is so good is to talk about a specific game that I was part of.

A while ago, we were having a game night to celebrate my cousin’s birthday and we brought out Deception. There were eight people at the table so we included the witness and the accomplice roles. I was the forensic scientist. The first game was a bit of a learning experience since we had four people who’d never played the game before and there was some confusion about how all of the roles work. The murderer had picked a whip as the weapon and a Kleenex tissue as the evidence left behind. As clues, I was able to give “bedroom” as the location, “lovers” as the relationship between the murderer and victim, and “bodily fluids” as a trace at the scene. By the end of the game, two people had figured out the correct solution and were lobbying the last person with a badge to guess it, but that person guessed something else and the murderer got away.

In our second game, everyone was now clear on exactly how to play. The murderer picked a dumbbell as the weapon and a cassette tape as the evidence left behind. I was the forensic scientist again. Initially, I thought I was going to have an easy job of it because I would just pick “gym” as the location to suggest the dumbbell. However, looking through the location tiles, I realized that there is no gym. There isn’t even anything that remotely resembles a gym. Eventually, I settled on “storeroom” because weights and old tapes both seem like things that might be in a storeroom. I was also able to pick “entertainment” as an activity that was happening, and “hot” as the weather.

We started to go around and have everyone give their theory of the crime. Most people seemed very uncertain and were focusing on a broom because of the storeroom clue. Guesses were all over the place about what entertainment meant.

Then we got to one of the new players. He looked around the table and said, “You know, I don’t know why, and this is kind of off the wall, but I’m thinking a storeroom could also be a weight room, and maybe the person was in there lifting weights and jamming to this cassette tape. That’s just what I’m thinking.” Now, he didn’t turn in his badge to guess that and ultimately the murderer ended up getting away again…

…but that moment convinced me of the greatness of Deception.

We were playing with three weapons and three clue cards per player to make the game easier for the new players, but that meant we still had 42 cards out on the table and 63 possible solutions to the murder. And yet, somehow, from only six very vague clues, there was a meeting of the minds between me and this guy who I had never even met before about the exact way that the crime happened.

That’s what I love about Deception. When you get a clue, it doesn’t actually tell you anything. (I mean, sometimes clues are extremely strong indicators. For example, if the cause of death is poisoning, you can probably safely eliminate a blender as the murder weapon. Although, then again, could the poison have been in the blender?) This pervasive sense of ambiguity means that you get a great lightning bolt moment when you put the clues together with a solution in a way that makes sense. And yet, it also always leaves some wiggle room for a smooth talking murderer to point out a different solution. If you figure it out successfully, you feel like you’ve solved the crime using both halves of your brain because the game allows you to develop and play a hunch in a way that you cannot do in a game like Clue that relies solely on logical deduction.


There is a card for just about everything, from working someone to death to leaving an air conditioner at the scene of the crime.
There is a card for just about everything, from working someone to death to leaving an air conditioner at the scene of the crime.

In addition to being an extremely fun and engaging game, Deception is also very well-produced. It includes enough components for 12 players (13 if you have the Kickstarter version), plus almost 300 cards and over 30 clue tiles. Generally, this is enough to play the game three or four times in a row without seeing any duplicate murder weapons, evidence, or clues.

Family friendliness

A couple of the cards are graphic enough to give you nightmares.
A couple of the cards are graphic enough to give you nightmares.

The recommended minimum age for Deception is 14. The recommended minimum age for Clue is eight. Obviously, murder is never really family friendly. Clue has you trying to figure out if someone was bludgeoned to death with a pipe or hung with a rope—is that undercurrent of horrifying violence really appropriate for eight year olds? I don’t know, but I can see why the age for Deception is higher than the age for Clue. A handful of the cards in Deception have overtly disturbing images on them. Also, younger children (and some adults!) might have difficulty with the poker face that you need to play some of the roles.

Final thoughts

One of the very first games of Deception that we ever played will always stick in my mind. The evidence left behind was a cigar. I was the forensic scientist and one of the clue tiles was the weather. I chose “humid.” One of the other players said, “humid… humidor… maybe it’s the cigar.”

As the forensic scientist, you are not supposed to talk, gesture, or emote, but inside I was jumping up and down, screaming, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking!”

That’s the kind of roundabout thought process that you often have to use in this game—and I love it.

I’m not going to claim that it’s a perfect game. Sometimes it’s less exciting than others. Sometimes the murder gets caught in about a minute because the murder weapon they picked is completely unlike anything in front of anyone else. And there are things about the game that don’t make any sense. I mean, if the forensic scientist is a police officer, why can’t they just say who the murderer is, you know?

Deception also has a lot in common with other games like Mafia, Werewolf, Bang, and The Resistance, but, in a way, I like it better than any of those because it requires you to use fuzzy logic and lateral thinking as part of the game. Sometimes I ask myself, what is my favorite board game? I’m not sure, but Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is definitely near the top of the list.

Yardmaster Express: A tiny train game that delivers on fun

I recently wrote about Yardmaster, calling it the quintessential train card game, even if it is probably not the best.

So why isn’t it the best train card game?

Well, there are lots of train card games out there—in fact, there are so many that it doesn’t really even make sense to talk about which one is the best overall. Also, there’s one in particular that I like just a bit more than Yardmaster. I’m talking, of course, about its protégé: Yardmaster Express.

Yardmaster Express


Yardmaster Express takes the core hook of Yardmaster and boils it down to its essence: you’re still building a train and you can still only add cars to your train if they match the color or number of the previous car. However, in Yardmaster Express, you only use one type of card—train car cards—and each card has two train cars on it. Also, instead of each player having their own hand of cards, the players pass one hand around the table. Each turn, you add a card to the hand, pick a card from the hand to add your train, and then pass the hand to the next person. After everyone has a specified number of cards on their train (for example, five cards in a four player game), the winner is the person with the most points on their train.

The game is blinkofaneye fast. From start to finish, it takes less than 10 minutes. But those 10 minutes are packed with fun as you try to get as many points as possible onto your train, while keeping a watchful eye on your neighbors’ trains to make sure you don’t let them have the exact card that they need.

Points are earned from the numbers on the train cars, from getting a bonus for the longest consecutive color run, or from the caboose card. Each time you play, one caboose card is randomly drawn and placed in the center of the table. The caboose gives a bonus at the end of the game to each player whose train meets the condition on the caboose (for example, having no yellow cards on their train, or a specific sequence of numbers).

The cabooses all have clever names. The game even includes blank caboose cards so you can make up your own cabooses, like "The Bilbo," a bonus for finishing with a very unlucky 13 points on your train.
The cabooses all have clever names. The game even includes blank caboose cards so you can make up your own cabooses, like “The Bilbo,” a bonus for finishing with a very unlucky 13 points on your train.

Unlike Yardmaster, where the caboose expansion felt like one thing too much in a game stuffed full of addons, the Yardmaster Express caboose cards are the icing on the cake, adding an interesting new dimension to the game, distorting your motives so that picking lower point cards might potentially pay off at the end.


Yardmaster Express shares the minimalist art style of Yardmaster, with silhouetted trains and primary colored cards. I still love this art style; something about it always fills me with delight when I bring out the game. Plus, Yardmaster Express takes it into the third dimension by including a large wooden train piece for keeping track of the first player (which is also fun for driving around the table while making train noises).

Bottom: Yardmaster Express first player token. Top: Meeples from Wits & Wagers for size comparison. Not pictured: anything else.
Bottom: Yardmaster Express first player token. Top: meeples from Wits & Wagers for size comparison. Not pictured: anything else.


There are many different lenses to use when discussing what makes a board game great.

One lens to use is concrete: a game consists of a set of rules and a box full of physical pieces with material attributes used to enact the rules. Here, the quality of the game is determined by the clarity and character of the rules and the richness of the components.

From this perspective, Yardmaster Express is a great game. The rules are comprehensible and cohesive. The linen finished cards, magnetically closing box, and wooden first player token are extremely high quality.

Another lens is decisional: from this perspective, playing a game is making a series of decisions. This is often discussed in reviews of board games, but I’m not a huge fan of this lens because I’m not sure that a game is better the more thorny and agonizing the decisions are. The problem with evaluating games on the “quality of their decisions” is that it ends up promoting certain types of excruciating games over other games that are equally, if not more, entertaining. (Also, you know, are we even able to make decisions or is human consciousness a delusion?)

Still, the decisions in Yardmaster Express are clear and consequential: do you take good cards for yourself or keep bad cards from your opponents? Do you break up color runs to keep high numbers? Do you take lower point cards to try to get the caboose points?

There are an infinite number of other lenses for looking at games. Games as experiences… games as stories… games as promoters of social interaction… For me, what makes Yardmaster Express a great game is the emotions that it evokes. It’s a great game to sit around and play with family and friends. Anyone can play this game and I’ve seen firsthand how much people enjoy building their trains and trying to complete the bonuses while keeping other people from getting them.

Final thoughts

Let's just take a moment to acknowledge that "Express" is an outstanding pun for a faster version of a game about trains.
Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that “Express” is an outstanding pun for a faster version of a game about trains.

Yardmaster Express is special—an ingenious elevation of the ideas in Yardmaster, a distillation that adds by subtraction to become an even better game than its predecessor.

And yet.

I’ve seen a number of videos where the owner of Crash of Games has criticized the choices he made in publishing Yardmaster Express, calling out the game as being confusingly named and having gray box art.

I could not disagree more. It is not confusing that there was one game called Yardmaster and another game called Yardmaster Express—that’s called branding. Also, I find the art on both of these games to be extremely engaging. So what if the box is mostly gray? The striking, minimalist look of the game stands out. It’s a bold, dynamic, ageless looking game.

Interestingly, both Yardmaster and Yardmaster Express have been reprinted under new names with completely new artwork. The new version of Yardmaster, published in France, is called Aramini Circus (after the designer, Steven Aramini) and is about assembling a circus train with different types of animals. The new version of Yardmaster Express is called Backyard Builders Treehouse and is about adding levels to a treehouse. These new versions look amazing, I don’t think anyone can reasonably dispute that. But I’m still sad at the loss of the train cargo theme and iconic artwork. Yardmaster and Yardmaster Express were my cup of tea, two of the games that drew me into backing games on Kickstarter and two games that I still love to play.

Yardmaster is a first-class train card game

My wife alleges that Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Got a Thing About Trains” should be my personal theme song. See, general speaking, my wife and I have very different tastes in music.

Music Venn Diagram

However, there is one artist that we can both agree on liking: Johnny Cash.

Why do we both like Johnny Cash so much? His country ballads? His Gospel music? His social advocacy? His acting career? His unused James Bond theme song? His exploratory concept albums analyzing the American spirit—which happen to be absurdly underrated by, where they say things like “the album consists almost entirely of first-rate material” and then only give it three stars… how does that make any sense?

Anyways, there are many reasons to like Johnny Cash. Another one of them is his train songs. “Hey Porter.” “Orange Blossom Special.” “Casey Jones.” The entire Ride This Train album. Even “Folsom Prison Blues” is a bit of a train song. There’s hardly a folk song about trains that wasn’t written or at least recorded by Johnny Cash.

Still, if there’s anything I like more than songs about trains, it is games about trains. And if there is any one card game that perfectly embodies my love for games about trains, it is Yardmaster.


Yardmaster components

Yardmaster is a card game often described as a spiritual hybrid of Ticket to Ride and Uno. Each player is building a train out of train car cards. Each train car card has a cargo type (coal, wood, oil, cattle, or automobiles) and a number (one through four). The main hook of the game is that a car can only be added to your train if it matches either the cargo or the number of the previous car. Each turn, you draw cargo cards from the cargo deck and use those to buy train cars for your train. For example, a wood car with a three on it costs three wood cards. The cargo deck also contains bonus action cards that allow you do things like exchange cargo, pay less for cars, or draw extra cards. The first person to get a specific number of points on their train wins.

I always enjoy playing Yardmaster. It manages to be both fun and relaxing. The requirement that cars have to match to be added to your train never feels onerous since you can always buy cars and add them later. You can always do something on your turn, even if it is just build up your hand of cards. And it’s always a bit exciting when you draw a bonus action card: they give you plenty of opportunities to boost yourself or trip up other players without the game ever feeling mean-spirited or underhanded.


Yardmaster cards and tokens

The thing that attracted me to Yardmaster in the first place was the minimalist art style. I love the bright colors and timeless iconography. To me it always brings to mind the industrial simplicity of historic railroad logos like the Great Northern or the Chicago & Northwestern. I wish more games looked like this.


The one problem I have with Yardmaster is that the rules feel a mite overcomplicated. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the game is not that complicated, but its structure makes it feel like there’s too much going on. If this game was a Christmas tree, it would be too small for all of the ornaments that they tried to hang on it. It’s built around a simple idea: you use cargo cards to buy train cars. I love how the bonus action cards add a fun twist to that by allowing you to break certain rules. Unfortunately, the twists don’t stop there.

For example, the game includes a “Yardmaster token,” which gets passed around in the opposite direction of play and gives the person holding it three actions on their turn instead of two. On paper, this is great way to make sure the player who’s going first doesn’t win just because they’re going first. However, in practice, it just feels like complication for the sake of complication. It’s annoying to have to remember to pass the token, and it’s much easier to explain and play the game if you just have two actions per turn, period. The sliver of extra strategy and fairness that the token adds by giving you one extra action every third or fourth turn isn’t worth the hassle.

Similarly, the game’s Caboose Expansion seems like it was produced just for the sake of having an expansion. I mean, I get it… the concept of creating a “caboose expansion” for a game about train cars was too compelling to pass up. But it feels like it’s just adding more rules to the game without making it any more fun.


You'll feel like you need a train to haul all of this.
You’ll feel like you need a train to haul all of this.

Speaking of the Caboose Expansion, it seems like the only thing there’s more of than Johnny Cash train songs is addons for Yardmaster.

There is the Caboose Expansion that adds caboose cards. There are wooden tokens you can get to replace the game’s cardboard tokens. There is a cloth travel bag. There is the optimistically-named Bonus Card Pack #1 that adds more bonus action cards (no other Bonus Card Packs exist). And there is the Heisenberg Heist promotional pack that replaces all the oil cargo cards with ones referencing Breaking Bad.

As part of the Kickstarter, you could even get Yardmaster dice! (Note: dice are not used in the game at all.)
As part of the Kickstarter, you could even get Yardmaster dice! (Note: dice are not used in the game at all.)

Yardmaster is an interesting case study in the economics of Kickstarter projects. I got the game and almost all of the expansions for $20 during the Kickstarter. If you wanted to buy everything from Crash of Games today, it would set you back a staggering $47. That said, the only addon that I would classify as really essential is Bonus Card Pack #1, with one small reservation…

“Swap Railcars” card

My nemesis.
My nemesis.

Bonus Card Pack #1 adds a bonus action card that lets you swap two cars on your train, provided you still follow the rules about matching cargo and numbers. (Ordinarily, cars can’t be moved once they’ve been added to your train.)

No other card in the game has brought me as much angst as this one. During some games, I feel like I’ve been loaded down with two of these in my hand the whole time, unable to use them. At first, I thought that this card was vastly less powerful than the other bonus action cards and should have allowed you to break the matching rule, too. However, subsequently, this card has helped me to win on the last turn of the game, so I’ve come to realize that it is useful. Still, it’s hit or miss and if there was ever a Bonus Card Pack #2, I would want it to contain a bonus action card for adding a car to your train even if it doesn’t match the cargo or number.

Box strength

All in all, Yardmaster feels like an heirloom-quality game. The cards are thick and plentiful; you never have to reshuffle the decks during play. The wooden tokens are fancy enough for a railroad baron, but even the standard cardboard tokens are linen-finished and substantial. However, the game’s box is what really stands out. Yardmaster comes in the burliest board game box that I’ve ever seen. It is made out of 1/8 inch thick cardboard. I haven’t tested this, but I think it’s possible that an adult human could stand on the box without crushing it. It’s that sturdy.

Final thoughts

Yardmaster cards

I don’t think that Yardmaster is the best game ever created. It’s probably not even the best card game about trains ever created.

But I think it may be the quintessential card game about trains. Channeling the golden age of rail through stark, iconic artwork, it is the train card game that is as close to the Platonic ideal of train card games as it is possible to get. Conjuring up images of loading coal to the tune of a folk ballad, mile-long timber trains rolling down the winding mountains, wheels clacking loudly on the rails as they carry goods from city to city, or dodging the brakemen and freighthopping your way to adventure and a new life, it’s a fun, fast, boldly-colored endeavor to couple together the best train you possibly can.

Burger Up brings grilling to game night

Sometimes you look forward to something for a really long time, and then it’s not what you expected.

When my wife’s sister and her husband got married, they had two food trucks cater their wedding reception. One of the food trucks was extremely slow and I never got to try it. The other one was a taco truck.

That taco truck was my hero. They were fast. They were friendly. Their tacos were delicious and just slightly too spicy. When I went back for seconds, I asked how many tacos they could fit on a plate.

My wife and I loved those tacos so much that we vowed to try the restaurant associated with the taco truck someday. I found myself thinking about going there every time we talked about eating out.

Almost a year later, we finally tried it.

It was a strange feeling walking down a busy street during peak lunch hours and then stepping into a deserted restaurant. Initially, I wasn’t sure that they were even open. The very front was just an unused room full of old deep fat fryers. In the dining room, one of the walls was exposed plywood. There was lots of weird stuff sitting around. A rusty ladder. A baby stroller. A dusty office chair with a pile of clothes in it. A bunch of candy just dumped in a display case under the counter.

Every table had crumbs on it. When we sat down, my chair was missing an arm. I spotted a chair arm on the floor nearby, and at first I thought it was the one from my chair, but then I realized it was from a different chair at the next table over. The napkin dispenser was dirty and empty. There was a crusty bottle of hot sauce with no lid. Flies joined us at our table. I found myself thinking, “Is it rude if I shoo these flies away while the owner is looking in this direction? I don’t want this to get too awkward.”

In their defense, the plate of food they brought out looked great. It was colorful. It was exactly the right amount of food. It was those same delicious tacos all over again.

But even the best tacos imaginable could not possibly redeem the atmosphere. We walked out feeling like we’d just been on the “before” segment of a Kitchen Nightmares episode, wondering if it was actually even a licensed and health-inspected restaurant.

So, sometimes you look forward to something for a long time and it lets you down.

Something else I had looked forward to for a long time was the game Burger Up. I had backed it on Kickstarter and followed all of the project’s weekly updates, looking forward with excitement to eventually getting to play it. A few days ago, my copy finally arrived…

Burger Up

Burger Up components

Burger Up is a card game from Rule & Make where each player is assembling burgers by creating stacks of ingredient cards. On your turn, you stack ingredient cards from your hand onto your bottom bun cards (each card specifies the type of ingredient that can be stacked on top of it). If one of your ingredient stacks meets the requirements of one of the top bun cards in the center of the table, you can complete the burger. For example, the “Vegetarian Cowboy” top bun requires a veggie patty, barbecue sauce, and no meat. When you complete a burger, you receive money based on how tall the burger is, plus a bounty for finishing the top bun. At the end of the game, the player who completed the most burgers receives a bonus and the winner is the player with the most money.

Unlike the taco truck restaurant, the Burger Up Kickstarter did not let me down. This game is fun.

I love completing a burger and raking in a big stack of coins. I love strategizing which top bun to go for and claiming it just before someone else. I love how the game gives you so many options that you never feel stuck. Each ingredient card has two ingredients on it, so it can be placed in two different ways. If you don’t like the ingredients you’ve gotten from the draw pile, you can purchase ingredients from the center of the table. If all else fails, you can use your spatula card to rearrange your burgers and bail yourself out.

Details make a game great and Burger Up gets all of the details right. The cards are thick, linen-finished, and easy to read. The rulebook is a paragon of clarity: I didn’t encounter a single confusing issue or rules question. The game’s artwork is outstanding, right down to the unique garnishes on almost every top bun card. Burger Up even includes details that you didn’t know to expect, but will be looking for on all future games: one of the reference cards has a first player marker so that you can shuffle them up and deal them out to determine the first player.

Game length

These top buns definitely cut the mustard.
These top buns definitely cut the mustard.

I have two problems with Burger Up. First, the artwork looks so good that it makes you hungry for a burger every time you play. Second, the game feels a smidge too long. The game has one element of long term strategy: if you cash in a “colossal” burger with ten ingredients, you can either get money for it or give yourself the ability to build burgers faster by increasing the number of ingredient cards you can stack each turn. That’s a real dilemma, but it just doesn’t feel like enough depth to justify the game’s length (which the box correctly states is around 45 minutes). Instead of going through the whole top bun deck each game, it feels more fun to just play with half of the deck.

Recipe book

If the base game cheeses you off, the recipe book dishes up a double stack of meaty variants that won't leave you in a pickle.
If the base game cheeses you off, the recipe book dishes up a double stack of meaty variants that won’t leave you in a pickle.

Burger Up plays from two to four players, but the Kickstarter version of the game includes a “recipe book” with variants for one, five, and six players. The recipe book also includes an actual hamburger recipeplus instructions for Burger Up variants inspired by the games Between Two Cities, Galaxy Trucker, Hanabi, and Sushi Go. It’s kind of like getting five different games in one box.

Burgers of the World expansion

Still hoping for an expansion that adds a fish patty.
Still hoping for an expansion that adds a fish patty.

Burger Up also has an expansion called Burgers of the World. The expansion includes new ingredient and top bun cards with regionally specific foods from Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico. The expansion does exactly what I want an expansion to do: expand the game with exciting additional content. If you shuffle in all of the countries, it does seem to slow the game down a bit because certain top buns that require specific ingredients become more difficult to fulfill. Still, that feels like a fair tradeoff for the increased variety of ingredients.

The expansion also includes Globetrotter cards, which are ingredient cards that say “Globetrotter Ingredient” instead of having an actual ingredient on them.

I'm never going to use these.
I’m never going to use these.

According to the creators, the Globetrotter cards were included because they wanted to meet a demand from backers for customizable cards, but they didn’t want to include blank cards that could only be written on once. I get that. Write-on cards make me uneasy, too. But these are the worst of both worlds—these permanently have nothing on them. Yes, this is Existential Reviews, but that doesn’t mean that I want existential cards where whatever you imagine to be on them is what’s actually there. I wish that they had made write-on cards or just picked another country. Any country. Jamaica. Zanzibar. Mordor. I would rather have cards with my least favorite foods on them than these cards.

Anyways, the reason I’m bagging on the expansion cards is that they’re the only thing about this game’s production that can reasonably be criticized. Rule & Make invested a lot of time into making sure this game was literally perfect.

Final thoughts

I think that board games about food are underappreciated. Board games have a great capacity to create joy and build relationships, but a lot of people are never going to be comfortable stepping into the board gaming hobby and immediately sitting down around a table to play a game about dwarves, orcs, zombies, superheroes, spaceships, or giant monsters destroying Tokyo. However, almost everyone is comfortable sitting down around a table for food. Food games are uniquely positioned to put people in their comfort zone and open up the board gaming hobby to a wider audience.

In Burger Up, the red and white checked wrappers on the bottom bun cards remind me of every great burger I’ve ever eaten at a diner or cafe. There’s just something satisfying about getting together at a burger place with friends or family. The server brings out your orders and everyone’s gotten something different. Some people start by picking up their bun and squirting ketchup on it. Other people put pickles on. Other people pick their onions off. You’re all eating and everyone says to everyone else, “How’s your burger? What did you get?” Burger Up is that satisfying feeling, packaged in a board game box.

Bigfoot vs. Avalance at Yeti Mountain: Searching for the best cryptozoology board game

Legends of Sasquatches, Yetis, and other undiscovered creatures have fueled human imaginations for centuries—including my own. When I was young and we would drive through remote parts of Oregon, I would look at the endless stands of evergreens, wondering if Bigfoot was out there somewhere, roaming the forests. I remember being a little boy, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, watching programs on the History Channel debunking videos of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. I also remember staying up late one night, watching the movie The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, captivated by the unexpected elements of cosmic horror and atomic age dread. I still haven’t written the definitive Bigfoot novel, but I did recently purchase two board games involving cryptozoological creatures: Bigfoot and Avalanche at Yeti Mountain. Are these games as majestic as the creatures that inspired them?



Bigfoot is a game for two players, essentially a sophisticated version of the game Mastermind. One player takes on the role of a cryptozoologist attempting to locate Bigfoot’s hidden lair. The other player takes on the role of Bigfoot, trying to evade discovery. In each round of the game, the cryptozoologist player sets out two trails of clue cards. The Bigfoot player chooses which trail to take, and consequently, what types of clues to reveal. Then the cryptozoologist uses those clues to attempt to deduce the location of Bigfoot’s lair.

What does playing Bigfoot feel like? Well, what does “playing a game” feel like in general? You know when you’re halfway through a game of Battleship and you’ve narrowed down where you think the other person’s carrier is and you call out “A7” and you’re waiting for them to tell you if that’s a hit or not? Or when you’re playing Apples to Apples and you’re trying to figure out which card your friend will think is most “scenic” (“Ikea,” “Russia,” or “The Dump”)? Or when you’re playing Settlers of Catan and Sam just picked up five wheat so you declare a monopoly on wheat? Those moments of excitement define what “playing a game” feels like, right? You feel immersed and engaged, but you’re also relaxed because you’re having fun and enjoying yourself.

The point is, when you’re playing a game of Bigfoot, it definitely does not feel like you’re “playing a game.” You feel like you’re trying to solve a logic puzzle about solving a logic puzzle while another person is staring at you, hoping you mess up. It’s not like playing chess where there’s basically an infinite number of possible moves and counter moves. In Bigfoot, you know that there’s a finite number of moves. And you feel like, if you had a computer brain, you could figure everything out for sure. But you don’t have a computer brain. So you either have to pull out a piece of paper and make every turn last 10 minutes while you fully analyze the problem, or just hope you’re not making a dumb mistake because your tiny organic brain cannot fully comprehend all of the information in the game.

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain


Avalanche at Yeti Mountain is essentially SkiFree: The Board Game. If you don’t know what SkiFree is, just don’t tell me or it will make me feel old and outdated. In AAYM, the players take on the role of skiers trying to avoid a Yeti and outrun an avalanche. Each turn, players use cards to advance their skier. Then the player in last place chooses where to move the Yeti. Then the avalanche advances a predetermined amount of spaces, knocking out any skiers in its path. The winner is the first skier to reach the bottom of the mountain, or the last skier who hasn’t been flattened by the avalanche.

SkiFree was a computer game for Windows 3.1 where you get eaten by an Abominable Snowman. I loved setting the trees on fire.
SkiFree was a computer game for Windows 3.1 where you get eaten by an Abominable Snowman. I loved setting the trees on fire.

AAYM faithfully captures the spirit of SkiFree. It can be an extremely fun time. It can also be a frustrating test of your patience where it feels like you are crashing every two seconds. Essentially, AAYM is the polar opposite of Bigfoot. The only random element in Bigfoot is the order that the cards are drawn, and the rest of the game depends entirely on the deductive skill of the players. On the other hand, AAYM is practically a game of chance. You get choose which card to play each turn, but because you can never know for sure what cards other people are going to play, you can never really predict how many spaces you’re going to move. As a result, fully controlling your movement down the mountain is impossible.

AAYM looks like a game where you move your skier from Point A to Point B. However, if you approach it like that, it’s probably not going to be an enjoyable experience. You do have to be aware of your skier’s relative position on the mountain, but the fun of the game comes from trying to bluff the other players into playing a card that will make them crash. It feels a lot more like playing Skip-Bo than a sophisticated modern board game. But sometimes, at the end of the day, when you’re worn out from decision fatigue and you can’t stomach the thought of a demanding game, you just want to play something that’s quick, simple, and entertaining.

Game pieces

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain's wooden Yeti and skier meeples.
Avalanche at Yeti Mountain’s wooden Yeti and skier meeples.

I love the silly, cartoony artwork in both of these games. It’s legitimately difficult to hate either one of them when they look like this much fun. Plus, if there’s anything as fascinating to me as Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman, it’s a board game with high quality wooden pieces. I love the wooden footprint tokens from Bigfoot and the wooden skier and Yeti pawns from AAYM. Unfortunately, the wooden tokens for Bigfoot were a Kickstarter exclusive item. The cardboard tokens included with the retail version of the game are tiny and sad in comparison.

Bigfoot's wooden (Kickstarter exclusive) and cardboard (retail) foot tokens.
Bigfoot’s wooden (Kickstarter exclusive) and cardboard (retail) foot tokens.

Box size

Bigfoot looks like it is a much larger game than AAYM. Do not be deceived. The actual components of Bigfoot are small enough to fit in the AAYM box. In fact, the actual components of Bigfoot are small enough to fit inside the tuckbox included inside the Bigfoot box. The Bigfoot box is a receptacle for transporting air from a factory in China to your house that incidentally happens to include a board game.

Barriers to entry

In a really bizarre coincidence, Bigfoot and AAYM come in two of the most difficult to open game boxes that I have ever encountered. You know how safes and vaults are rated on the amount of time that it takes a burglar armed with ordinary hand tools to open them? For example, a TL-15 safe can withstand a typical attack for 15 minutes and a TL-30 safe can withstand a typical attack for 30 minutes. The lids on these boxes are so tight, this type of rating system seemed appropriate. For comparison purposes, I scientifically measured how long it takes to open the boxes of several popular board games:

Batman Fluxx: 1 second
King of Tokyo: 1 second
Star Trek Catan: 1 second
Ticket to Ride: 1 second

Then I measured how long it takes to open the boxes of these games:

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain: 12 seconds
Bigfoot: 15 seconds

15 seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but when a game takes 15 times as long to open as normal, it’s unbelievably frustrating and annoying.

Final thoughts

The legendary Bigfoot-ed Yeti.
The legendary Bigfoot-ed Yeti.

If I was forced to keep one of these games and throw the other one in the garbage, I would keep Avalanche at Yeti Mountain and trash Bigfoot. Bigfoot isn’t terrible. I can actually see myself playing it with my kids someday, with them as the cryptozoologist and me not trying to win, but just engaging in it as a fun way for them to practice logic and deduction. However, as a game to bring out with my wife, family, or friends, I would rather play Avalanche at Yeti Mountain. It doesn’t capture the experience of skiing down a mountain with visceral verisimilitude, but it is a viable value if you’re vying for a game with a vibrant, vivacious vibe.